Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
July 17, 2010
Picture this – two guys riding into Aspen on their lily-white steeds, shiny-armored-up and at full gallop, just in time to save Pitkin County from the devastation of out-of-control growth (1972). That’s a romantic notion of Joe Edwards and Dwight Shellman, if you believe in fairy tales, and there’s a certain dogged population of unquestioning belief that adheres to the memory of that ideal, but the reality was full of contention and hard feelings that survive to this very day.
Swing by the Aspen Historical Society on West Bleeker and check out its new summer exhibition, “Out of Your Mind, Body and Spirit – Voices of Aspen in 1975.” It’s an excellent look at the metamorphic convolutions Aspen was going through in the 1970s, one of which was growth.
In the late 1960s and early ’70s, Pitkin County, Aspen in particular, had seen a tremendous increase in population. In an ironic twist of reasoning, those newcomers who themselves had been most of the growth decided they’d seen enough, and determined it was time to take over the politics of “their” town and put a halt to more kindred spirits moving in behind them.
The locals, those who had lived through the “quiet” years and had no conception of the Aspen-specific coined term “local,” felt a little out of sorts at this turn of events, especially at the arrogance of those fledglings who thought they “knew better” than the long-time townspeople.
Edwards, a leading radical of the period who helped form Citizens for Community Action, a group designed to protect Aspen from the vagaries of growth, ran for mayor in 1969. The “old guard” was leery of Edwards and elected a woman instead, Eve Homeyer, a staunch conservative. Even CCA, Edwards’ own group, had endorsed Homeyer.
Then came Hunter Thompson’s ill-conceived 1970 bid for Pitkin County sheriff and his loss, coupled with that of Edwards a year earlier gave the orthodox townspeople a sigh of relief. They figured, at least for a time, that the “new boys in town” couldn’t win, not even by importing the “freak, head and dropout” vote from surrounding towns, anywhere from Basalt to Boulder.
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Times change, and in 1972, Shellman and Edwards, both newly elected to the board of county commissioners and fueled by opinions picked up and reinforced during neighborhood caucus meetings (reminiscent of Chicago politics), went hell-bent on a mendacious mission of creating a down-zoning plan for Pitkin County that some thought would choke it to death. The problem was that a large majority of the people voicing their pleas for growth control owned very little, if any, local property.
The large landowners, found in Woody, Capitol, Sopris and Snowmass creeks and other areas, amounted to little more than a handful of people and even though they owned tens-of-thousands of acres of agricultural land, they had almost no voice in a political land control scheme. The county commissioners ran roughshod over them, adding insult to injury.
One of the high-profile commissioners was heard to exclaim, naively, that the days of “fiefdoms” were over. It sounded like redistribution of wealth and a personal vendetta, even back then. Agriculture had recently been outranked by tourism as the number one economic indicator in Pitkin County and ranchers were beginning to run scared. And now they were being told that Pitkin County would control their land, their lifeblood.
In the end, one can argue all day about the success of the growth control; there still isn’t a compelling view. Ranchers survived the thuggery, but only in real estate values, for it knelled the end of agriculture in Pitkin County. Predictably, real estate prices are astronomical, about a third more than in “comparable” areas.
Aspen, for all it’s talk about controlling growth, looks more cobbled up today than it did even 10 years ago. View planes are considered “passe” and today’s Aspen Club, airport and hospital expansions are lighting up the grid. Don’t you wonder where all the white horses have gone?
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